On Loving your Job

Further to last week’s post, I should note for balance that many people not only tolerate and need their jobs, but actually love their jobs (even when they also hate certain aspects of them).

They will tell you, for example, that they find their job fascinating, or that they love meeting people in the course of their work, or that it offers many little satisfactions in a working day, offsetting the many little frustrations. And so on.

Samuel Johnson wondered angrily how anybody could say they enjoyed something (work) which they only started each day reluctantly and left off each day with relief. It is a fair point, but enjoy it we often do. In part this is because of those inherent satisfactions – psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks of the concept of ‘flow’ where you get so lost in your occupation that you become unaware of the passage of time or of you bodily needs: you forget to eat lunch, forget to go home, forget to sleep.

Most of us do not experience flow on a daily basis, but in other ways, work can be good for us. It takes us out of the house, makes us interact with people, feeds into our sense of self-esteem (on a good day) and so on. These are all recognised to correlate with our long term health.

Correlation is not causation, of course. Incessant work will kill you, spiritually if not physically. But the sharp separation of work-life from life-life, where work happens in your workplace and life happens everywhere else, is a function of industrialisation. Work, in other contexts, bleeds into life. It is just one more thing that you do. It may be that we are experiencing, not a take-over of our lives by our work, but the re-establishment of more natural patterns of work and non-work. To go to work is not or will no longer be a question of going from a place that you like to a place that you hate.

On Hating your Job

I asked my students yesterday what, if anything, they hated about their jobs, and was perhaps not all that surprised to discover that the answer was, quite a lot.

What is it that people hate? In general they hate futility, sometimes stress, occasionally colleagues; they hate the repetitiveness of problems, meeting déjà vu, indecisive or absent-minded bosses, commuting, email, poor pay, insufficient resources, inadequate technology, unclear goals.

And they hate, sometimes, the incessant quality of most jobs, the fact that the pressure and work ratchet up beyond the reach of a holiday. But perhaps that could change. On her daily world service radio broadcast, financial journalist Lucy Kellaway tells the story of a high-powered friend of hers, the busiest person she knows, who some months before fell in love and as a consequence reduced her work commitments drastically, refusing to answer emails in the evenings or at weekends, coming in an hour later than usual, not attending networking events or most meetings, and so on. And the result? She was promoted and received her largest ever bonus.

Kellaway concludes that we should all learn to be a bit more idle, because idleness promotes a certain focus, a shrewd prioritisation. And it might mean that, though will we still, from time to time, hate our jobs, we might just hate them a bit less.

Crowd Control

All teachers occasionally teach to a tough crowd – group dynamics are one of the great unknowns in a language classroom, almost impossible to predict – but I have never really had any disciplinary problems to deal with. Discipline in a language classroom is usually a question of inculcating or exploiting self-discipline, not exercising crowd control.

Crowd Control –Centauromachia Michelangelo (1492)

Crowd Control –Centauromachia Michelangelo (1492)

It may be that from time to time a teacher has to chastise students for using their mobile phones in class, a peccadillo that affects business people as much if not more than their much younger peers (and business people do not have the excuse of an underdeveloped pre-frontal cortex, most of the time). Or in a monolingual class, use of the mother tongue is an understandable and not unforgivable crime, but one which must routinely be kept.

But I have occasionally had to speak sharply to an individual. My own disciplinarian model is based on that of the ineffectual Sergeant Wilson (do hurry along now chaps), perhaps in reaction to the regime I encountered at school in the 1980s which included, in my own experience, thrown chalk, routine boots up the backside (P.E. teacher), a clenched and enraged fist an inch from my nose (housemaster), and, more classically, the cane. There was also talk of a boy pushed out of a window and another taken by the throat and lifted from the floor, but these may be apocryphal.

I have therefore tried as far as possible and I think successfully to break the cycle of abuse. I have, to repeat, spoken sharply to the odd student, but only in the interests of establishing some boundaries of sanity; I once, many years ago, left a classroom in an impotent rage, but no one noticed. And I think once or twice I may have used one or other of the classic variants on the only-at-best-half-true ‘it’s your own time you’re wasting’.

The fact that I haven’t need to pull out the big club is either a testament to my own natural authority (doubtful) or to the high intrinsic motivation of most language learners. I suppose I am lucky.

Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s Law states that work will increase to fill the time allotted to it.

Typesetter at Enschede, Haarlem – Charles Frederick Ulrich

Typesetter at Enschede, Haarlem – Charles Frederick Ulrich

This is not always a bad thing. Every morning after first break students at the school spend half an hour or so doing a little preparation for the lesson that follows. They might do a bit of reading, or think about language in a given context, and so on. Often the preparation can be done well within the half-hour, and when it is appropriate we’ll just start in with the lesson. But students will take different amounts of time to complete tasks, and it happens that certain students, once they have finished the assigned task, will stare into space for a minute, look out of the window, check their mail; and then go back to the exercise in question, and start to think more carefully about it. They will check meanings or details of grammar, or complete bits of work not requested. This is all useful, small corners of time taken up with unedited work on language.

But in general, Parkinson’s Law, taken as a measure of the imbecility of institutions and bureaucracies, holds. Time is allotted, and tasks swell.

Cecil Northcote Parkinson, the originator of the law, had many unhappy years’ experience with the Civil Service, and made a number of trenchant and witty observations regarding it. He noted, for example, that bureaucracies will inevitably swell, pointing out that the British Colonial Office reached its greatest size just as it was folded into the Foreign Office for want of colonies left to administer. This happens, he noted, for two reasons:

  1. Officials make work for each other.
  2. An official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals.

He noted, in this connection, that ‘a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the verge of collapse’, and was also able to outline a law of triviality, whereby the amount of time spent considering matters in committee is in inverse proportion to their complexity. Committees will sign off on vastly expensive projects to build nuclear power stations in a matter of minutes because no one on the committee understands the issues, while they will agonise over the construction of a bikeshed, because everything thinks they know what they are talking about.

It is one of the odd luxuries of teaching English as a foreign language that the trivialities are often the most worthy of exploration – for example, I sometimes think students get more benefit by an order of magnitude from wrangling over the softwares in use in their presentations, than they do from any amount of grammar tense work. The implication of Parkinson’s Law, perhaps, is not that we should more carefully manage and audit our time, but that we should not be too quick to fill our time with tasks of pompous magnitude.

Pigeon updates

The wood pigeons I posted about last week are still sitting on their nest, except when they’re not.


I am told, in fact, that one of the pigeons has flown the nest, or been destroyed by the neighbours’ cat, or has anyway absented itself, and the surviving pigeon is now stolidly multitasking.

There is not much hope, I think. Gestation of a pigeon egg takes seventeen to nineteen days and it is already cold. How long does a pigeon chick need before it can survive a winter? It may be that the absent mate has simply made a pragmatic calculation, and taken itself off to warmer climes, or is busy fattening itself for the winter.

Pragmatism is a valuable quality, but there is still something to be admired in the grim persistence of the remaining pigeon. I have known students persevere with their English beyond all reason. One student I taught in Italy, who had managed over many years to store a hopeless jumble of vocabulary in his head but was unable to arrange any of it in the most basic of sentences, finally got to spend a few weeks in England and it all started to come right. He was never going to win any prizes, perhaps, but he had asked for directions on the Underground, he told me triumphantly, and had understood them when they came; he had survived in restaurants and cafes and pubs, and in taxis and in his host family. He had not found an opportunity to deploy any of his vast and ill-assorted lexicon, but he had perhaps lighted on a simple procedure which allowed him to prioritise certain items and forget certain others. He was better-fitted, in short, to survive an English winter.

So perhaps our pigeon will pull his/her chicks through it all. Anything is possible, if you have a bit of pigeon spirit.

No John No

Yes and No might seem to be the simplest, most primal elements in a language, a universal and straightforward system of assent. But being among the oldest elements they are also the most subject to corruption and dialectical separation.

Thus in England, to restrict our field of consideration, we have not only yes and no but also yup, yep, ya, nope, nah, aye, yay, nay, not to mention yarp and narp,uh-huh, uh-uh, and various other grunts of assent or dissent along a vanishing spectrum of intelligibility.

And now, from the east of England (apparently) we have jearse and dow. Stephen Howe, a historical linguist based at the University of Fukuoka in Japan has flown back to East Anglia to see if we really do still use the dialect forms jearse and dow for yes and no (answer: not to my knowledge, but perhaps when we have a heavy cold). He claims his father and grandfather used them, and that they might still be current in pockets of ancient population out on the fens. Anything is possible out on the Fens, of course, but I have not heard them.

Anyway, on the subject of dow more than jearse, here is a traditional English song that is close to my heart, sung, improbably enough, by the Red Army Choir.

Horse Knowledge

“Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!” said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. “Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.”

“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
“Now, girl number twenty,” said Mr. Gradgrind, “You know what a horse is.”

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

I misled my students yesterday with regard to the whereabouts of Napoleon Bonaparte’s horse, Marengo. It is not, as I wildly claimed, in the National Horseriding Museum in Newmarket, just down the road from Cambridge; it is in the National Army Museum in London.

Napoleon on his horse, crossing the Alps, by David.

Napoleon up on a horse, thought to be Marengo, crossing the Alps, by David.

The information was pertinent (barely) because we were on the subject of horses, and we were on the subject of horses because one of our number, Manuel, was telling us that when he was a teenager he was placed third in the highly-specialised Andalucian horse discipline of dressage. He subsequently secured a place at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art at Jerez de la Frontera, but took a degree course in civil engineering instead.

I learnt more about horses in four or five minutes of conversation than I have in a lifetime (if you except the Gradgrind sort of knowledge, above). I learnt about the differences between horses bred for the game of polo and for other sports, horses bred in America and Ireland, and the uses of the Andalusian horse.

All I was able to contribute in return was a wrong fact, which I nevertheless communicated with great confidence. By way of correction, I can confirm now that Marengo was a smallish grey Arabian horse, fourteen-and-a-half hands high, and was wounded eight times under Bonaparte, carrying the general at battles including Wagram, Austerlitz and Waterloo, where it was captured by the eleventh Baron Petre, and put to stud at New Barnes near Ely. It died at the advanced age of thirty-eight. It is assuredly not in Newmarket.